Woody Allen is back at bat with Cafe Society, another story of a writer and the spaces that inspire and threaten him. Obviously, we’re not at a loss for opportunities in Woody Allen’s back catalogue to examine the director in exactly this mode; the very sense of a fictive past that has tormented his characters for decades has come home to roost, with Allen’s films doomed to repeat themselves much like the work of his characters. That doesn’t mean they can’t repeat in style, but it is unlikely that they will be more stylish than the exemplary peak of Allen’s evolution as a serious artist throughout the ’70s.
In stark, almost combative contrast to the prickly ennui of Scorsese’s Catholic-guilt stricken version of the city or Spike Lee’s hot-box from hell, Woody Allen’s New York has typically taken the form of a watchful angel that tests and teases but ultimately loves all of its inhabitants. In Allen’s films, people rely implicitly on physical spaces and ideological places like New York to redraw and redefine themselves. In Manhattan, and maybe only in Manhattan, this self-definition feels threatened by a city that is itself threatened by its own constant makeover, a city that is always reimagining itself until it encroaches on evaporating from reality altogether.
Manhattan is Woody Allen’s most transcendent motion picture, and possibly his most deceptively thorny, because it is an unabashedly incomplete and contradictory ode to the city that has infected almost all of his masterpieces with a kinetic jubilance. A radical treatise on the redefinition of love, it is a film that pretends to cast its lot in with human relationships and ultimately exhibits its greatest curiosity about spatial geometry and the possibilities that percolate within the mental prism that nominally corporealizes as a cross-hatch of streets and avenues. Love here isn’t simply human connection but self-definition, and it has much more on its mind than a pas de deux of two people in an otherwise anonymous space.
Of course, Allen’s best films always disrupt or bend both physical and mental spaces, tangling them in their own complications before reforming them in a semblance of new sanity if not necessarily absolving them of their sins. Fittingly, then, Manhattan suffuses its namesake in Gordon Willis’ photographic fashion-show courtship, affectionately and monstrously recasting the city by the minute without ever sacrificing its essential transformability or mystique. In Manhattan, the city never sleeps, but it is always dreaming. And worrying about itself.
Certainly not a summer fling like his career-defining, and career-reorganizing Annie Hall, Manhattan is a liaison between that film’s novel glamour and the disaffected somnambulist curiosity of the forgotten film Interiors, Allen’s Bergman-riff that arrived between the more resplendent peaks of Hall and Manhattan. The negative-tinted black-and-white lusciousness is an immediate clue-in to the ennui-adjacent tone of Allen’s complicated ode to his hometown. Rather than the semi-escape in the free-flowing LA provided to Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, Manhattan chooses not to essentialize NY as one side of a dialectic with LA but instead to enter NY into a dialectic with itself. In one scene, Willis’ misty monochrome is a sensitive third-wheel in a midnight tryst. But in another, the city’s darkness seems to preclude endearing adoration altogether, refiguring the backdrop for romance into an active participant in loss, a mausoleum to hide one’s own troubles away in. Like an idea, the city can be anything to anyone, but its most essential component is its reconfigurability.
Don’t mistake the colorless black-and-white hues for a prison sentence of pure diametric opposition though; this is also a city that can be many things at the same time, rather than simply modulating itself between two tones. While Allen’s character Isaac is indoors, the film can be more restful, graceful, and prowling all at once, dressing itself in a classical Hollywood sheen that is undercut by the provocative film grain. Nominally a series of intellectual, brainy conversations, the film’s interiors are not merely existentialist but exploitation-adjacent. Practically donning horror-movie garb, the film refuses to exhale around Isaac, reconfiguring him as predator when he stalks around the house of his ex-wife, played by Meryl Streep. The chiaroscuro cleaving the apartment into pieces alone could cut through even the sturdiest of New York Mafioso stereotypes, figures who are very much at home spiritually in Allen’s amalgamation of New York mysteries and imaginative figments. In this scene, one of Allen’s few where he visually addresses the more malevolent tendencies of his sympathy for emasculated men, New York is a decidedly less amorous partner than we’ve come to know.
This is merely one of many human and locational identities essayed in Allen’s film, a mystical and always elusive treat that dances around Allen’s Isaac and Yale (Michael Murphy), both men who may face possible futures with Mary (Diane Keaton). More complex is the relationship between Allen’s character, a struggling writer without much of an identity outside of his books, and Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a teenager who Isaac is dead-set on avoiding or at least pushing away from; Allen’s troubling personal life and the nominally romantic light he typically casts his nebbish males in are both implicitly redressed in a film that curiously denounces its male characters, intimating their discomfort with personal, present-tense relationships and vivid, lively human interaction.
The film always seems to be reconfiguring itself, doubting its appearance, sketching itself anew in a different shade of grey that always leaves open the possibility of other adjacent shades, other selves, invading and replacing its current identity. The material quality of the film even threatens to slip away from us with all this metaphysical redistricting afoot, turning the city into a phantom or a specter that, like Allen’s character, might just lose itself amidst all of its malleability. In the famous Brooklyn Bridge scene, the city is torn between a nearly illusive impressionist mist in the background and a blacked-out silhouette in the foreground, like it is splitting itself and fracturing its completeness to try on different selves for different moments for different people. As a transformable backdrop to differing emotional complexions, the city also liquefies its own identity, abstracting it from the limits of a physical form and paving the way for a location that might be afraid to step into the light and see itself as anything permanently. So much spidery slipping and sliding threatens to topple a city whose legs become wobblier by the minute.